Encouraged by my own uneventful ride on a once sex-segregated bus a few months ago, I thought the whole topic was dying down and we were miraculously learning to live and let live. Unfortunately, the story of Tanya Rosenblit has brought the reality of bullying fanaticism masquerading as religious piety roaring back into the headlines again, with greater force than ever.
Traveling to the Givat Shaul neighborhood in Jerusalem from her home in Ashdod, she’d boarded the 451 Egged bus from Rova 7 in Ashdod, which would leave her a five-minute walk from her destination. Innocently, she selected the seat behind the driver simply because she wanted to ask him when to get off.
The driver didn’t say anything. What was there to say? Bus 451 has never been designated a sex-segregated or “mehadrin” line.
A haredi man boarded. Seeing Rosenblit, he insisted on standing by the doors, apparently because – and this is news to me though I’ve been Orthodox almost all my life – he was adhering to the latest, brand new ancient halacha that says a man can’t sit behind a woman. I’ve since tried looking up this halacha in the Code of Jewish Law, but couldn’t find it. I guess it’s on the same page where it says you can spit on a woman who isn’t dressed according to your taste, or throw down a seven year- old in the street on her way to school if you disapprove of girls learning too near where you live. Or perhaps there is a new code of Jewish law being written even as I type which, like the information on which buses are now being added to the mehadrin list, is only available to those self-designated few who have taken on the task of enlightening the rest of us.
Bus 451 was soon commandeered by one of them, who directed male passengers to block it from moving. Rosenblit was barraged with insults and epithets. Loud complaints echoed that their “rights were being violated.” It was eerily similar to what had happened to me in 2004. A bully in saint’s clothing trying to force me into the back of a bus kept saying things like “there are laws in this country!” Like Rosenblit, I felt humiliated and afraid. And as with Rosenblit, the driver did absolutely nothing to intervene and protect me.
That is why I joined the Israel Religious Action Center lawsuit in Israel’s Supreme Court: to clarify the laws governing public transportation and to prevent my experience from ever happening to another woman in Israel. Although the Supreme Court decision last year clearly bans forced segregation on buses and demands bus drivers intervene in case of such harassment, clearly there is no compliance.
A policeman, called to the scene in Ashdod, spoke briefly to the driver and at length to the haredi men finally boarding the bus to ask Rosenblit to move to the back “to honor their feelings.”
Her answer rings in my ears: “They have to ask themselves what honor it brings them to degrade and humiliate a woman.”
Rosenblit has been vilified on haredi Internet sites, which I guess is to be expected, given that their code of Jewish law is also missing the pages about avoiding the great sins of libel, slander and gossip and how embarrassing a person in public is akin to murder. What haven’t they said about her? That she didn’t live in Ashdod. That she boarded the bus in order to provoke an incident. That she deliberately stuck her elbow into the aisle, forcing men to touch her when they walked by (as if!); that she threatened to take all her clothes off if they didn’t leave her alone. Rosenblit has called all these accusations “a vile lie.”
Invited to join Rosenblit on the evening news with Dan Margalit, I was astonished when Margalit, whom I have always deeply respected, put Rosenblit on the hot seat, insinuating that as a journalist (she’s a production assistant for JNI News and lists herself as a translator and student at Camera Obscura) she might have been trying to provoke a news-making incident.
I was sickened by this line of questioning.
As I told her on air, she is a heroine and I hope every woman would have the guts to behave as she did. I’d like to use this opportunity to apologize to her. The purpose of all our efforts in going to court was to keep her and women like her safe from this kind of harassment. But if this is the result of our efforts then we, and the State of Israel, have failed her miserably.
Who is responsible? Well, the Supreme Court for one. Instead of outlawing sex segregation on buses altogether, it has left the back door open, literally and figuratively, turning buses into war zones and leaving women to face lynch mobs filled with a renewed sense of entitlement. It’s the police, who strive for expediency and order instead of enforcing the law. It is our minister of Transportation, who made a promise he couldn’t keep that no woman would be forced by violence to sit in the back of buses. It his fellow government ministers who pander to religious extremists in the name of political expediency all the while happy to cover their tracks with paeans to cultural diversity, as if the Jewish religion were some exotic cult whose members have customs we have never before encountered.
And it’s our sorry form of coalition government that allows little parties to redraw at will all our social, religious and cultural red lines, moving them ever forward and beyond until they are barely visible.
But I’m happy to note that the accumulation of ultra-Orthodox outrages has finally, finally caught up with them, leading to a real paradigm shift in thinking. The majority in Israel is fed up and the usual haredi whine that “the public is being incited against us” isn’t working anymore.
I too used to subscribe to the comforting idea that it was only a small number of haredi extremists involved in the bullying and abuse of women, the silent majority disapproving from afar, cowed into silence.
I’m no longer comfortable with that idea, which is sounding sickeningly similar to the liberal contention, all facts to the contrary, that Islam is a religion of peace.
If there really is a silent majority of haredim who disapprove of spitting on little girls who wear sandals without stockings or humiliating women who refuse to be invisible, then let’s see them open their mouths and say so for once. After all, as we have seen numerous times in the past, who better than haredim know how to gather thousands when they want to voice opinions on subjects that matter to them?
This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 30 December, 2011.